Archive for 2003

Spirited Away * * * * 1/2

Posted in Adventure, Animation, Family, Fantasy with tags on September 3, 2013 by Mark Walker

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Director: Hayao Miyazaki.
Screenplay: Hayao Miyazaki.
Voices of: Daveigh Chase, Jason Marsden, Suzanne Pleshette, Michael Chiklis, Lauren Holly, John Ratzenberger, Tara Strong.

Having co-founded Studio Ghibli in 1985 and directed 11 films himself, the highly unique animator Hayao Miyazaki has unfortunately announced his retirement. The forthcoming “The Wind Rises” will be his last venture, so it now seems like a good time to look back at arguably his best film.

Chihiro is a 10 year old girl who is moving to a new neighbourhood when her father decides to take a short cut and gets the family lost in an abandoned theme park. Helping themselves to food that’s on display, Chihiro’s parents are transformed into pigs and it soon becomes clear that they have stumbled into an alternate reality. Chihiro is then forced to find a way to free herself and her parents and find a way back to the human world.

Quite simply, Miyazaki’s “Spirited Away” is a triumphant, fantastical, masterclass. Not only is his hand drawn animation as gorgeously refined and refreshing as ever, but his storytelling incorporates everything from the mythical to the magical, taking us on a truly breathtaking visual and intelligent journey. As his later film “Ponyo” would channel the likes of Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Little Mermaid“, here, Miyazaki has undoubtedly crafted his version of Lewis Carroll’s “Alice In Wonderland” and it’s in this similar realm of imagination that he is able to flourish. We are introduced to a myriad of fantastical figures from Gods, Spirits and Witches to a Sea Dragon, an enormous baby and strange little coal miners, known as “Sootballs”. Despite the rich hand drawn animation, though, it’s not all played for fun. It’s a rights-of-passage tale about the progression of a child to adulthood while finding the time to comment on the economic downturn of Japan and the increasing loss of it’s culture to the western world. It’s this very complexity that makes this Miyazaki’s near masterpiece. The only issue with the film is that it’s overlong, resulting in periodic disengagement – especially for younger viewers. It’s runs just over the two hour mark and this is with several parts of the story cut out- the original version of Miyazaki’s story would have run over the three hour mark. That being said, this is still one of animation’s true classics and thoroughly deserving of it’s Academy Award for Best Animated Feature in 2002.

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A breathtaking tour de force from one of the finest and most imaginative storytellers that animation has ever seen. Sadly, there will only be one more outing from Miyazaki but thankfully we’ve had to the pleasure to enter into his creative genius at all. Such accomplished cinematic experiences will be sadly missed.

Mark Walker

The Station Agent * * * *

Posted in Drama with tags on August 26, 2012 by Mark Walker

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Director: Tom McCarthy.
Screenplay: Tom McCarthy.
Starring: Peter Dinklage, Patricia Clarkson, Bobby Cannavale, Michelle Williams, Ravin Goodwin, Paul Benjamin, Richard Kind, Josh Pais.

Having just recently gotten into the HBO TV series “Game of Thrones” and finding the character and Golden Globe winning acting of Peter Dinklage very appealing, I decided to look back at one of his major leading roles in The Station Agent. I had seen this film years ago and liked it a lot but on a repeat viewing, I enjoyed it even more.

Fin McBride (Peter Dinklage) is a young man born with dwarfism that has consistently struggled to fit into society. He has a passion for trains and works in a shop selling such items but when his only friend and co-worker dies, he finds that in his late friends will, he has been left an abandoned train depot in rural New Jersey. Looking for solitude, he packs up his things and moves there only to find unusual friendships developing with local struggling artist Olivia (Patricia Clarkson) – trying to overcome a personal tragedy of her own – and Joe (Bobby Cannavale) an overly friendly Cuban hot-dog vendor, desperate for some form of interaction with people.

This plot summary might not sound like much but don’t be fooled into thinking this is an uneventful or boring affair. It’s far from it. Yes, not a lot is going on this film but that exactly the appeal. It’s filled with such attention to detail and strong characterisation that this film is plentiful. I’m a sucker for these type of low-key, subtle and observant dramas and this debut from director Tom McCarthy is a perfect example of that particular sub-genre. It’s a slow moving and thoughtful film that sensitively deals with feelings of loneliness and isolation. To embody the emptiness, McCarthy is aided with three superb lead performances which are poignant and heartfelt but more importantly, realistic. Not a lot is going on in their lives but that’s the very thing that holds your attention. It’s the bond and the relationship they develop with one another that gives this film it’s heart. McCarthy handles the material delicately and seems entirely aware of the appeal that these characters have, as are the performers; Dinklage is an actor with many qualities and it’s great to see him in a rare but well deserved leading role. Patricia Clarkson is always an actress I’ve admired and it baffles me why she isn’t seen more often. The biggest surprise though, is Bobby Cannavale who provides the comic-relief to the suffering of the other two. That being said, this film isn’t the slightest bit depressing despite the subject matter. In fact, it’s a charming and absorbing human tale.

An original and affecting debut from director Tom McCarthy that displays a genuine warmth and respect for struggling individuals. His ability to be both perceptive and humorous is rarely captured so well on screen.

Mark Walker

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Goodbye Lenin! * * * * *

Posted in Comedy, Drama, Foreign Language with tags on June 17, 2012 by Mark Walker

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Director: Wolfgang Becker.
Screenplay: Wolfgang Becker, Bernd Lichtenberg.
Starring: Daniel Brühl, Katrin Sass, Chulpan Khamatova, Maria Simon, Florian Lukas, Alexander Beyer, Burghart Klaussner.

Directors Lars von Trier from Denmark, Pedro Almodovar from Spain, Michael Haneke from Germany, Guillermo del Toro from Mexico and most recently Tomas Alfredson from Sweden are a handful of director’s from across the globe that have cemented a fervent following worldwide. These are a notable bunch (and there are many others), so why is it then, that after this little gem of a film from 2003 that German director Wolfgang Becker hasn’t made more of name for himself? If this film is anything to go by, he certainly deserves more recognition.

In 1989, East German teenager Alex (Daniel Brühl) feels liberated when the Berlin Wall comes down. His mother, however, is a staunch Communist, who would balk at the thought of westernisation. Just before the collapse of the wall, she has a heart attack and falls into a coma. When she awakens 8 month later and Germany now reunited as a country, Alex along with his older sister are advised by doctors to protect her fragile condition from any form of stress. As a result, they fabricate news bulletins and information to dupe their recuperating mother into believing German reunification never actually happened.

With a music score by Yann Tiersen, who done the wonderful soundtrack to the 2001 French film “Amelie“, you’d be forgiven for having similar feelings to that film while watching this. It’s not just the music that they have in common though. They also share an inventive and highly original approach. This may not contain the fantasy elements of “Amelie” but it’s delivered with such an offbeat creativity that it could hold it’s own against (another notable director) Jean-Pierre Juenet’s aforementioned delight. It has a great mix of humour and pathos with scenes of such tragic sadness combined with a wonderful lightness of touch and sharp observational humour. Despite the title of the film and the political setting of the story, this is essentially a coming-of-tale and less of a commentary on the demise of communism in East Germany. The fall of the Berlin wall serves only as a backdrop to the maturing of the young protagonist. So as not to ostracise his audience writer/director Becker wisely and cleverly, doesn’t side with either East German communism or West German capitalism but instead, skilfully crafts a bittersweet satire and nostalgic tale of life from both sides of the country. He’s also helped immeasurably by two emotionally understated performances from his lead actors; Daniel Bruhl and Katrin Saas.

I was aware of this film when it was released but it should never have taken me as long as it has to get around to viewing it. Now, I’m just glad and hope that others don’t make the same mistake of ignoring this profound and poignant pleasure.

Mark Walker

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Matchstick Men * * * 1/2

Posted in Crime, Drama, thriller with tags on January 29, 2012 by Mark Walker

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Director: Ridley Scott.
Screenplay: Nicholas Griffin, Ted Griffin.
Starring: Nicolas Cage, Sam Rockwell, Alison Lohman, Bruce Altman, Bruce McGill, Beth Grant, Jenny O’Hara, Steve Eastin, Sheila Kelley.

It’s hard to imagine after all his war and gladitorial carnage that the playful tone of this film belongs to director Ridley Scott. It’s a nice and very welcome change of pace for him.

Roy (Nicolas Cage) and Frank (Sam Rockwell) are a mismatched duo of low-level con men, considering that one is an obsessive-compulsive and the other a louche chancer. But their dysfunctional partnership and Roy’s teetering sanity face an even bigger challenge in the shape of his 14 year-old daughter Angela (Alison Lohman).

The con artist’s profession has always looked like a great way to make a living. Well, maybe that’s just the romanticism of Hollywood but nonetheless it still makes a great way for entertainment. Watching the inside plays and set-ups, feeling as if you’re part of it and privvy to hush-hush information is always an audience winner. You can also be sure of a few narrative curve balls here and there, before finally getting the rug pulled out from right under your unsuspecting feet. This is no exception. Ridley Scott wisely plays it very low-key from the get-go, leaving the film to play out in the more than capable hands of his actors and he’s rewarded with three excellent performances. Nicolas Cage is all tic-ridden and full of phobias and nervous energy. Sam Rockwell is his usual wise-ass sidekick, lending (as always) more than able support and Alison Lohman delivers a spot on portrayal of a naive teenager fascinated by her fathers profession. It’s through these performances that we become involved in the story. They’re believable characters and despite their swindling ways, they’re likeable.

Not normally the type of film that Ridley Scott has been turning his hand to of late but it’s still a finely crafted hustle and the performances are top-notch.

Mark Walker

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Kill Bill: volume I * * * *

Posted in Action, Crime, thriller with tags on January 24, 2012 by Mark Walker

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Director: Quentin Tarantino.
Screenplay: Quentin Tarantino.
Starring: Uma Thurman, Lucy Liu, Vivica A. Fox, Michael Madsen, Daryl Hannah, David Carradine, Sonny Chiba, Chiaki Kuriyama, Gordon Liu, Michael Parks, Bo Svenson, Julie Dreyfus, Michael Bowen, Jun Kunimura, James Parks.

“The 4th film by Quentin Tarantino” we are told in big bold lettering, almost as big as the title itself. It has now become an event filled with anticipation when the one time video store clerk releases a film. One thing is for sure though, when entering into his violent world of cool amoral criminals, snappy dialogue and cult music selection, you’re in no doubt when you’re on Tarantino’s territory.

Shot in the head and left for dead on her wedding day by her colleagues “The Deadly Viper Assassination Squad”, a former assassin known as ‘The Bride’ (Uma Thurman) wakes from a coma four years later, intent on revenge. She makes a ‘death list’ of the five people involved and number five on her list is former boss and lover Bill (David Carradine), but first she has to go through the others one by one.

That pesky Tarantino has gone and done it again. He may well plagiarise but his knowledge of world cinema and the heavy influence it has on his films, in some ways, allows a wider audience to access some wonderful cinematic ideas they normally wouldn’t. He borrows but also betters. The collision of influences this time are Japanese anime, spaghetti westerns, Samurai and Yakuza pics. It’s an impressive mash up of genres and Tarantino’s meticulous eye for detail combines them masterfully. Present once again is the same split time frame structure that Tarantino devotees will be accustomed to, with each part of the story told in chapters. His pop-culture references also appear, as does his ‘muse’ Ms. Thurman. She doesn’t really have a lot to do other than slice and dice one or two (hundred) people but Thurman brings a suffering intensity to the role and confirms why Quentin holds her in high regard. This is a bloodletting extravaganza and Tarantino gets a chance to show that he’s a highly capable action director into the bargain. It’s an accomplished piece of filmmaking with the vibrancy and gorgeous cinematography by Robert Richardson deserving a very special mention. None more so than the concluding showdown between Thurman and Lucy Liu’s ferocious O-Ren Ishii at ‘The House Of The Blue Leaves’. It’s an absolute visual masterclass and must be included as one (in the many) of Tarantino’s finest scenes. It’s simply stunning and a surprisingly serene and composed ending to this frenetic first installment of the story.

Highly implausible I hear you say? Of course it is, but it’s also highly enjoyable escapism and Tarantino proves that he can turn his hand to any genre.

Mark Walker

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Mystic River * * * *

Posted in Drama, Mystery with tags on January 13, 2012 by Mark Walker

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Director: Clint Eastwood.
Screenplay: Brian Helgeland.
Starring: Sean Penn, Tim Robbins, Kevin Bacon, Laurence Fishburne, Marcia Gay Harden, Laura Linney.

There have seemingly been no restrictions in Clint Eastwood’s directorial armoury – now spanning several decades. He can turn his hand, more than competently and reliably to any genre and this adaptation of Dennis Lehane’s novel is another of Eastwood’s finest, especially in terms of characterisation.

In a small Boston neighbourhood, three young friends are playing, until a car pulls up and abducts one of them. 25 years later the friends have went their separate ways. Jimmy (Penn) is the local gangster, Sean (Bacon) is a police detective and the abuctee Dave (Robbins) is just trying to keep his life together after the traumatic events of his childhood. All these years later, more traumatic events falls upon these former friends as Jimmy’s young daughter is murdered and with Dave displaying some very unusual behaviour, he becomes the prime suspect in Sean’s investigation. The traumatic events of their past seem to be, only now in their later years, fully unravelling.

Admittedly I haven’t read Lehane’s book and apparently Robbins’ character is given more of a back story which makes more sense to his character and his actions and has less of a whodunnit stroryline. That being said, the mystery involved in the perpetrator of the murder is the film’s weakest link and the tenuous revelation of the murderer is very unconvincing which almost threatens to undo the whole thing. Thankfully though, Eastwood holds it together despite that major plot discrepancy and the film is ultimately a character study in the soul searching and what-if’s throughout their lives. The whole ensemble put in fine performances but none more so than Sean Penn as the emotionally afflicted and grief ridden father. He was robbed of an Oscar a few years previously for his magnificent turn in “Dead Man Walking” but here gives a similiar emotive and heart wrenching performance and thoroughly deserved his 1st Oscar this time around. Eastwood also directs with consummate ease and adds another powerful and thought provoking film to his credentials.

It could have been a classic but unfortunately has a major flaw in the denouement but like the very fine performances, it’s hard to forget.

Mark Walker

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Something’s Gotta Give * * *

Posted in Comedy, Romance with tags on January 10, 2012 by Mark Walker

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Director: Nancy Meyers.
Screenplay: Nancy Meyers.
Starring: Jack Nicholson, Diane Keaton, Keanu Reeves, Frances McDormand, Amanda Peet, Jon Favreau, Paul Michael Glaser, Rachel Ticotin, Patrick Fischler, Kevin Watson.

Director Nancy Meyers is no stranger to romantic comedies. In fact, it’s her forte and your never left in any doubt as to what a film of hers will consist of. This is no different, but does have the added bonus of a more than watchable cast.

Record label boss Harry Sanborn (Jack Nicholson) only dates women who are half his age. But when he suffers a heart attack at the home of his girlfriend’s mother, playwright Erica Barry (Diane Keaton), he’s surprised to find himself falling for this intelligent, mature woman – even though she’s being courted by Harry’s young doctor (Keanu Reeves).

I’m not a fan of the rom-com genre but when it’s a selection of appealing actors delivering delightful performances, it’s hard to say no. It’s great to see Nicholson and Keaton sparring again, 22 years after their last collaboration in “Reds” in 1981 and how often do you get a film that has veterans such as these two great actors sharing screen time with the successful names of today, like Keanu Reeves and Frances McDormand? It doesn’t pretend to be anything other than an enjoyable romantic tale and for that reason you can sit back and know exactly what your in for, with the always reliable actors adding to the predictable comfort of it all.

Lighthearted love fluff, that works well for what it is and maintains a level of entertainment throughout, thanks to it’s star wattage.

Mark Walker

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